Guest Post: Desire for a Return to “Original Social Responsibility”

Dr. Rod Wallace contributes to today’s guest post. He is a Fulbright Fellow, economist, consultant, and speaker who helps businesses make more money by solving society’s problems.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) can be more than society crying for help. It can also represent a fundamentally new approach to creating profit that will enhance investor return for the long term: CSR can strengthen society, enhancing the value that business obtains, by developing suppliers, educating future employees, and expanding demand for higher-value-added products and services. However, to become that approach, CSR must evolve, becoming increasingly powerful insights, tools, and strategies to deliver meaningful social change.

Skeptics look at CSR as businesspeople greenwashing their guilty souls, or tactical publicity stunts. A certain amount of CSR is certainly good for a traditionally operated business. Millennial employees, in particular, are engaged by CSR, and that attraction provides a critical benefit, especially in a tight job market. Customers, suppliers, and others are attracted by the related public relations announcements. No wonder more than 60% of Fortune 500 companies in every sector provide CSR reports.

Yet, without a long-term benefit anchor, the skeptics’ argument may be correct. During a recession, a business leader may think, “I no longer need gimmicks to attract and retain employees. Our investors are best served by eliminating any CSR cost that solely benefits society and the environment.”

But that business leader would be missing incredible potential. CSR can be key to a source of fundamentally new sources of investor value, as well as value for the rest of society. Through coordinated, coherent action, business can strengthen the society in which it operates: enhance suppliers, educate future employees, and expand demand for higher-value-added products and services.

Particularly high potential derives from the effort to deliver on business’s “original social responsibility.” Every industry originally flourished because it fulfilled a fundamental social need. For example, the food industry developed to efficiently deliver nourishment, and healthcare to deliver support that helps us obtain long, healthy lives.

Business creates its primary value for society by satisfying such original social responsibilities. And the measure of how well a business satisfies that need is, in concept, profit: a financial reward for those who find innovative ways to satisfy society’s needs.

However, as I illustrate in my book Drowning in Potential, How American Society Can Survive Digital Technology, more than 60% of today’s American economy is dedicated to industries failing to deliver on their original social responsibilities:

  • Our food doesn’t nourish us as it should: the obesity epidemic is now global, and levels of micronutrients are decreasing in much of our produce. We are on track for American loss of life from food and eating patterns at least nine times greater than World War II casualties.
  • Americans spend vast amounts on healthcare. Yet we have the shortest lives in the developed world, and they’re recently getting shorter, as depression, suicide, opioids, and other poor lifestyle choices become growing problems.
  • Despite large increases in educational spending, huge portions of American college graduates cannot understand a simple table or make a cohesive argument (Belkin 2017).
  • Most cities on the forefront of developing digital technology provide insufficient housing, despite plenty of available land (Hsieh and Moretti 2017). As a result, the number of those individuals (largely in the tech hubs) who deeply understand and can best develop and apply that technology is reduced: people interested in living in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, and the other tech development centers simply cannot find affordable housing. As Hsieh and Moretti explain, this may reduce how effectively new technologies are applied across the entire economy, costing the US as much as 40% of our economic growth over the past several decades.

There is massive value potential for society—and investors—for those solving such fundamental problems.

However, delivering such core value today requires a toolbox that combines both typically for-profit actions and those we think of as socially responsible. From that toolbox, aligned and complementary actions must be chosen: those that create the society that values, recognizes, and delivers the complementary actions rewarded with profit. Large stores of benefit do not arise simply from an alignment of some company’s actions with the UN goals for Sustainable Development; value created depends also, and critically, on whether those actions change the fundamental nature of our social interactions and outcomes.

Improving our health requires more than a healthcare industry featuring a bright physician who recognizes medical problems and can implement the most relevant pharmaceutical and surgical options. We must ensure social systems are in place to support eating healthfully, exercising, and following doctor’s orders. Delivering nourishing food require more than just placing an ear of corn in front of a hungry person. Consumers must understand the basics of healthful choices, and food labels must be both comprehensible to the average consumer and representative of food scientists’ innovative efforts. Education requires all children get to school safely, learn basic skills, and receive an answer to the question, “If computers will be smarter than humans in a few decades, why does my education matter?”

Only when we integrate traditional business tools with socially responsible approaches can we overcome such problems and fulfill a business’s original social responsibilities. A fractured approach with businesspeople entering the community from time to “do random good” will continue to breakdown and fail. And an integrated approach requires a higher level of leadership featuring a clear vision of the world that business, social, and in some cases, regulatory efforts will create.

Translating innovation into business profit as well as social value requires fresh thinking, but the potential for value creation is massive. Do the business leaders who embrace CSR also embrace the higher level of leadership required to integrate social responsibility fully into business? Do decision-makers fully understand the potential for translating technology potential into consistently positive societal outcomes? Will individual businesses consider their own futures, and collaborate across industries to fulfill their original social responsibilities? Will managers adopt the tools that clarify the interplay between actions we currently consider for profit with those we think of as socially responsible? Will investors and their managers enforce a socially responsible framework that delivers to them, as well as society, the greatest possible return? In short, will you and I reap the broadest possible rewards of advancing technology?

We’ll find out over time, but we cannot just wait and see. We must act. Our society cannot just survive. For the sake of our children, it must thrive.

Disclaimer

The views, opinions, and positions expressed within all posts are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Corporate Social Responsibility and Business Ethics Blog or of its editors. The blog makes no representations as to the accuracy, completeness, and validity of any statements made on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with the author.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Desire for a Return to “Original Social Responsibility”

  1. Interesting to read about companies “original social responsibilities” and the importance of complementary measures to CSR when delivering on those responsibilities. You also made an important point about the role of CSR in today’s business world even in times of recession. In this regard, do you think the recent stance taken by the Business Roundtable – “Each of our stakeholders is essential” and not just the interests of investors – is indicative of a positive paradigm shift and reflects the high-level integrated approach you refer to as necessary to achieve long-term change? https://opportunity.businessroundtable.org/ourcommitment/

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Liemertje.

      Statements by business groups such as the Business Round Table supporting social responsibility are certainly positive. So are statements of CSR support by organizations representing investors such as Blackrock, Vanguard, and CALSTRS (all three expressed support for CSR during the Weinberg Center’s Corporate Governance Symposium (here), for example).

      At least in part, I think such statements are a response to people wanting to be able to tell stories about what they buy: the pink rhino horn sink faucet ‘were modeled on ones in Elvis’ bathroom, for example. Or, more constructively these sautéed mushrooms were grown by a company operating a prison-to-society work program. With the fever-pitch around many social issues, such socially responsible stories are particularly compelling.

      Will this lead to long-term change? It depends on how impactful the resulting socially responsible efforts are. Changing our social systems so that people actually begin to eat more healthful food, just to take one example, is a big, complex problem. Organizations focused on this area must collaborate effectively, and such effective coordination is currently uncommon. It’s unclear yet how society structures efforts that will re-design such complex systems in a way that rewards all actors for their work. It’s possible, but we still have to (consistently) get there.

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